November 7, 2006

Are married people too taken up with each other?

History prof Stephanie Coontz thinks we've become too dependent on marriage as our source for personal happiness and have neglected our other social relationships. Here's the historical background:
St. Paul complained that married men were more concerned with pleasing their wives than pleasing God. In John Adams’s view, a “passion for the public good” was “superior to all private passions.” In both England and America, moralists bewailed “excessive” married love, which encouraged “men and women to be always taken up with each other.”

From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

The Victorian refusal to acknowledge strong sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including physical touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.

By the early 20th century, though, the sea change in the culture wrought by the industrial economy had loosened social obligations to neighbors and kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage. Under the influence of Freudianism, society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection.
And so married people turned to each other. To excess. This peaked in the 1950s, and after that, there was some healthy skepticism of the overly insular family. But somehow we're drifting back into an excessively marriage-focused way of living.

The problem, in Coontz's view, is not only that we deny ourselves the happiness to be found in friendships, but also that by expecting so much from one romantic relationship, we can put so much pressure on it that it breaks. What's worse, if the marriage was our source of happiness, we have nothing.

45 comments:

Dave said...

I sense an "attack on the institution of marriage" tirade coming from certain commenters.

Trevor Jackson said...

Kurt Vonnegut has said that when married couples fight, what they're really saying to each other is, "You're not enough people!"

MadisonMan said...

I don't see how the view of the 19th century can be surprising -- how many marriages back then were for love, vs. convenience, tradition, family advancement, or duty?

If we went back to arranged marriages, things would all sort themselves out.

Edward said...

Nothing prevents married people from having intense friendships today. Friendships are important for a person’s emotional health. Any marriage that can’t accommodate both spouses having their own close friends isn’t a very good marriage.

And it’s downright goofy to say that, compared to earlier cultures, our culture is somehow lacking because married people today aren’t allowed to jump in bed with their “friends.”

That kind of ridiculous idea strikes me as a provocative claim designed simply to grab attention, not because it has any merit.

Academics (in this case Professor Coontz, not Professor Althouse) are especially prone to issue such absurd pronouncements in the hope making a name for themselves.

I know a lot about gay history, and Coontz’s claim relies upon but then ultimately distorts (badly) a lot of solid historical research on the practice of homosexuality in much more repressed eras.

I even find Coontz’s claim offensive, because she seems basically to say that earlier cultures dealt with same-sex love and affection better than today’s culture does.

Such a claim is flat-out wrong.

Today’s culture is much more enlightened about all forms of love, affection, and friendship between people of the same sex. Scholarship like Coontz’s exhibits a weird and unhealthy nostalgia for a very repressive past.

Goesh said...

I had been with alot of women before meeting Wifey and have had no need to be with any but her since....for what its worth. Familiarity has never bred contempt nor boredom, or predictability. The active, engaging mind can thrive in monogamy as well as in polygamy but nothing anchors the soul like a good mate.

bearing said...

Does this reduce to "Emotionally healthy people have stronger marriages?"

Brent said...

It is not a "complaint" of St. Paul that Married men are dedicated to their wives. It is statement of the freedom to move quickly in other areas while single or unattached vs. the responsibilty of marriage - not a better/worse contrast. It has nothing to do with the level of love for committment to God. It IS an example of Professor Coontz taking something out of context.

When someone mistates a premise at the beginning of a paragraph, it's hard to give credence to anything else that follows.

Pogo said...

Re: "...we need to restructure both work and social life so we can reach out and build ties with others"

Uh oh, I smell a social engineer at work. Someone stop that man before he kills again!

Seriuosly, what utter crap. Isn't just possible that people invest more in spousal relationships by choice, having found the transient nature of friendships at work and community less reliable?

In my town, it's simply not worth investing in long-term friendships, as people seem to move every 2 to 5 years. Gone.

The "face-to-face ties that build social trust" aren't possible when balkanization by race and gender are enforced in Great Universities from the first week of class.

Anonymous said...

First, it could sensibly be argued, since Paul was writing during turbulant times where persecution and death were distinct possibilities, that marriage might not be the smartest endeavor (widows, orphans, whole families killed). Hence, his "however, if you must" marry, "better to marry than to burn."

Second, I agree with this history prof in the sense that society is so fractured (people moving all over the country and world for jobs so no roots) now that the expectations for a spouse are enormous and irrational. No one person can be everything to a marriage partner, yet that is just what marriage is billed as these days. Remember Jerry Maguire's, "you complete me"? Blech.

That being said, marriage between mature, compatible people can be soul satisfying in ways that friendships can't. And I can assure this prof that I've never confused my husband for God and I'm quite certain the converse is also true.

As an aside, John Adams was utterly devoted to his wife Abagail. Perhaps its more accurate to say that those who have passion and devotion apply it to everything they love.

Zeb Quinn said...

Maybe it's a matter of marriage working better as an institution when ours was more of an agrarian and rural society. Less people around to interact and socialize with, thereby emphasizing the importance of the marital relationship. In a post-industrial urbanized society marriage may not be as important.

me said...

Marriage has always had a storied past. Just look at the Hebrew marriage contracts. They were as complex as as a leveraged airplane lease. I don't think there was ever any ideal period for marriage. I believe the most successful marriages are between relatively independent people that could live well enough alone, but enjoy each other's company.

Edward said...

Pogo: You really weaken the credibility of your ideas when you use extreme, over-the-top language.

You do this over and over again.

I don’t know if you think you’re being cute and funny by using such language, but all it does is make you appear like an intellectually reckless jerk.

And that’s a shame, because you do have some good ideas to contribute.

I could cite lots of examples of the ridiculously extreme language that you often resort to, but the “enforced gender and race balkanization in our great universities” line will serve my purpose for the time being.

Yes, our great universities often have serious problems in the way they approach gender and race issues.

Yet the claim that there exists “enforced gender and race balkanization” is utter nonsense.

Any American university student of whatever race, gender, or sexual orientation is perfectly free to construct whatever course of study and whatever social life he or she desires. There is very little that is actually “enforced” on American university campuses.

You play these kinds of sick games on gay issues, too, and I really wish you’d cut it out.

And I know you’re probably going to reply to this post by citing some obscure case at some American university where some poor student was required to do or say something that he found personally obnoxious on the issue of race or gender.

Well, you can spare yourself the trouble, and spare me the trouble of having to read about whatever case you’re able to dredge up.

One or two instances of bad things happening at some university or other does not “prove” “enforced gender and race balkanization.”

Edward said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Goesh said...

Edward, you keep repeating yourself

MaxedOutMama said...

Well now....

The marriages I have known which were successful over a lifetime had romantic fluctuations but were founded on a deep, solid friendship with components of admiration, respect, fascination, watchful tenderness and frustration!

I think that having one good friendship makes it more likely that one will have other good friendships, so I disagree with the prof's suggestion.

We may be a mobile society, but we have methods of communication that mean we need not be out of touch with our friends (although we may not be sharing beds with them).

Anyway, it's hard for me to phrase this properly, but I really do not have the same physical connection with my friends that I do with my spouse. Hug them, sure, but I'm not prepared to spend the night draped around them.

Edward said...

Goesh: I’m not criticizing Pogo for repeating himself.

I’m criticizing him for using language that is much more extreme than his ideas require.

He could express himself much more credibly simply by toning down his language.

And I actually don’t think that Pogo repeats himself in his use of extreme language.

He is actually very creative in devising new and original extreme language to use in expressing his ideas.

I just think his verbal creativity could be put to much better use than to push his ideas beyond all credibility.

Pogo said...

Re: " I’m not criticizing Pogo for repeating himself."
He only meant you double-posted.

Pogo said...

As for, "You play these kinds of sick games..."
"...intellectually reckless jerk.",
You're probably right.

Freeman Hunt said...

I just think his verbal creativity could be put to much better use than to push his ideas beyond all credibility.

No doubt he deeply appreciates your magnanimous advice.

Coontz rather sounds like someone who's mostly had trouble with marriage rather than someone who actually knows something about it.

Joan said...

Edward, don't be dense as well as stuffy! Goesh was ribbing you because your reply was posted twice.

Ann said: by expecting so much from one romantic relationship, we can put so much pressure on it that it breaks. This is so true. My first marriage failed largely because my ex-husband insisted I have only very limited contact with anyone but him.

But in healthy marriages, the spouses recognize that no one person can fulfill all of anyone's needs, something my mother told me a long time ago.

rhodeymark1 said...

Edward - I could say you're too easily tweaked. Pogo merely employs shorthand to get to the crux of the bisquit. I enjoy it - please don't change a thing.

Oh, and to the discussion at hand, doesn't anyone here think that the motion picture/television age has done profound things to our views and practice of relationships?

Edward said...

Joan: I removed the second post.

But I don’t think I’m being stuffy.

If I thought for a moment that Pogo was just trying to be humorous, I never would have criticized him.

His extreme language often just strikes me as hurtful and hateful.

I will admit that Pogo may not ever be intentionally hurtful and hateful in his use of language, but if that’s true, then he’s at least guilty of being extremely careless (if not downright reckless) in his choice of words.

Freeman Hunt said...

I know a lot of married couples, but none of them fit Coontz's description. All have friends outside of their marriages. No, none spend the night in the arms of their friends, but I think MadisonMan probably nailed the source of that.

Meade said...

Trevor Jackson said...
Kurt Vonnegut has said that when married couples fight, what they're really saying to each other is, "You're not enough people!"

An so... one grows up, sets aside one's narcissism, and raises a family. If healthy and balanced, social life expands exponentially.

The main thing legal marriage should do is to protect the welfare of children. All other things being equal, two individuals ought to be able to take care of themselves.

Tim Sisk said...

I assume that Professor Coontz is single. If she isn't, well, how do you think her husband feels right now?

Balfegor said...

Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

Hmm . . . makes me think of . . . Lord Byron. Haha.

I don't see how the view of the 19th century can be surprising -- how many marriages back then were for love, vs. convenience, tradition, family advancement, or duty?

If we went back to arranged marriages, things would all sort themselves out.

Yes, yes. Lets! But there are problems in societies dominated by arranged marriages too -- romantic love leads to adultery, betrayal, and serial heartbreak in such societies just as it does in modern America. And marriages that take place in a full family context can also put strain on the husband and wife -- the wife particularly -- as they struggle to fulfill their new roles in the family hierarchy.

Anonymous said...

I for one enjoy Pogo's intemperate language. I don't think he's hateful, just delightfully uninhibited. If you want hateful, there are other commenters who come more readily to mind. Personally, I'd love to buy Pogo a drink.

Coontz exaggerates, of course, but there's something there. I blame 19th Romanticism and its popular expression in movies and music. "I need you! I can't live without you! You're everything to me!" Coontz rightly diagnoses an internal weakness but provides the wrong prescription.

As others have noted, the problem isn't marriage, but weak, empty, and immature people seeking identity and purpose in a relationship.

Nataraj said...

In general I agree with the premise of the original post. Marriage, at the expense of other deep relationships, is doomed to fail. How many male readers here are familiar with the reluctance of their spouse to "allow" them a night out with the boys? While there are several possible reasons for this reluctance (past indiscretions, jealousy, possessivenes, you-get-to-have-all-the-fun), I think the kicker is possessiveness.

At this time (I've never lived at any other time, except that one life when I was Cleopatra like every other person who believes in reincarnation) marriage is so sharply defined and forces are at work to sharpen it further, that we do not have deep relationships with others, especially of the same sex.

I find it VERY interesting that several other commenters automatically assumed the references to close same-sex relationships, or sharing a bed, meant homosexual sex. I saw a reference to kissing, not sex. That jump to conclusions speaks volumes.

My wife and I have been blissfully married - with ups and downs to be certain - for nearly 20 years. Each of us has shared a bed with friends when visiting, same or opposite gender, without having sex. It's about friendship and relationship, not sex. The idea that we cannot have one without the other is quite limiting and sad.

No long-term friends? Sink roots and find others who are doing the same. It's LONELY to be job-chasing all your life, expecting your marriage partner to be a permanent rock. A bit selfish too, in my humble opinion.

And there is this great concept for distant friend: telephone, email, mail a journal back and forth, visit now and again for long weekends. You know, like they used to do in the Victorian era (well, except for the phone and email!). I have a dear friend in Ottawa that I only see once a year or so, but we know all about what's going on in each other's lives: fears, joys, hurts, successes, loves, adventures, and a bunch of otherwise boring minutia. It's a great friendship.

john(lesser) said...

I love Pogo's comments. They don't drip with condescension. He/she also refrains from launching into boring treatises with inane shit like "I know a lot about x".

altoids1306 said...

Hmm, since this is the NYT, I'll assume hostile intent. But aside from a few laughable statements here and there ("Women working makes men have more male friends"), it seems pretty neutral. A small miracle.

It's defintely true that previous ages handled same-sex relationships better. Holmes and Watson would probably be under attack by social conservatives for gay undertones if published today. On the other hand, actual homosexuals used to be executed all the time, so in that sense, count your blessings.

Other than that, it's just more "it takes a village" bullshit. The irony is, expanded social programs have reduced the economic incentive for extra-marital friendships. People are simply responding rationally.

Dave said...

By what laughable standard is Pogo's words inappropriate?

Edward said...

john(lesser): I thought it was a lot less condescending to say “I know a lot about gay history” than to say “I have a Ph.D. from a major university in a field closely related to the subject of Coontz’s book.”

That latter statement is true, but I don’t go around saying it all the time.

Is it against the rules of the Althouse threads to say that you know a lot about a certain subject?

If john(lesser) knew more about some subject than the average person does, I bet he would just come right out and tell us that.

And I wouldn’t be so stupid as to call him “condescending” simply for telling us that. I certainly wouldn’t call his writing “inane shit.”

Derve said...

Altoids is wrong about the "it just takes a village bullshit". Here's Coontz in a 1997 Salon interview available online:

"I don't espouse the 'it takes a village' approach because I think that it's as romanticized as the 1950s (nuclear family). We do not live in villages anymore. The real issue is that we have to make a village or make a community. We have to think in terms of the way we design our cities, the way we design our houses, the kind of social space that we reserve, whether we allow affluent people to withdraw into their private schools and gated communities. We have to rethink our work and school schedules to make them less conflictual with family life. People thought the world would end when the union movement demanded the 40-hour week. With our technology, there is no reason that we couldn't have a 30- or 35-hour week. Everybody says that that is an unreasonable demand. To my mind it is an unreasonable demand to ask that individual women shoulder all the burdens of caregiving in today's modern world. I think it is more reasonable to say that we have to adjust our housing and our work expectations and our child-care opportunities."

"One of the real losses for kids in some middle-class communities is the loss of neighborhood and community, where you could go out and you didn't rely on your own parents to be the only ones around. Throughout the vast majority of human history, exclusive and full-time child care by mothers has been totally exceptional. The co-provider family was the norm in colonial days, and in medieval history -- siblings or somebody else had to take care of the younger children."

Freeman Hunt said...

Is it against the rules of the Althouse threads to say that you know a lot about a certain subject?

No, but it's silly in most cases. Your arguments rest on their validity, not on your laurels.

Balfegor said...

Holmes and Watson would probably be under attack by social conservatives for gay undertones if published today.

I'm sure there is slash fanfiction about Holmes and Watson. And speculation about whether close male friends are gay is rampant today -- on Slate, in their "Blogging the Bible" feature (which is very fun) you can see one of their writers struggle to wrap his head around the idea of a deep male-male friendship that is somehow not sexual. And with Lord of the Rings, all kinds of people looked at Frodo and Sam and thought "gay couple."

Edward said...

Derve: Thank you very much for that last quotation from Coontz. I agree entirely with her ideas in that passage.

My real objection to Coontz’s NYT column is that she doesn’t take gay history into account sufficiently.

One of the main reasons that, centuries ago, friends of the same sex were able to express such intimate affection for each other is that open homosexuality was brutally repressed.

Back then, the subject of homosexuality was taboo, and the punishment for being openly gay was severe.

Thus, the presumption was that two friends expressing intimate affection for each other were just very close friends.

If, however, they were more than “just friends” and if it was revealed that they were actually in a sexual relationship, the consequences were very harsh.

I’m sure Coontz doesn’t want to return to past repression, but her general argument does exhibit a strong nostalgia for the past.

I think her argument would be stronger if she acknowledged more honestly just how repressive that past was.

Derve said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steven H. said...

Re: our fractured world, it will be interesting to see how the generation of social networking grows up:

“It isn’t that adults aren’t invited,” Ms. Cohen says. “It’s just they didn’t grow up with [social networking websites], so it doesn’t seem necessary. Sometimes I’ve wanted to say, O.K., imagine if everyone you knew sent you a Christmas card all on the same day. You wouldn’t actually see them but you’d have that comforting sense of being surrounded by the people you have known. Then maybe grownups wouldn’t be so lonely, and that is really the thing with us: Getting older, we are not going to be a lonely group.”

Fitz said...

Stephanie Coontz basic approach is fundamentally flawed. In her book (Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage) she collapses thousands of years of human history into 448 pages of agenda driven obfuscation. It is standard operating procedure for scholars in the contemporary academy to elevate the particular over the universal. By examining the institution of marriage through this lens, Coontz distorts its core meaning and value.

Of coarse marriage has always served a variety of social functions; this or that culture or class has sought to harness its power for this or that end. At this particular time, it is the agenda of gay & feminist activists to harness its power to normalize homosexuality, promote androgyny, and (in many cases) weaken marriages normative power.

None of this says anything about marriages essential purpose. She continually ignores its primary function of bringing men & women together in stable households for the successful rearing and education of their children. By focusing instead on the particulars of everything from the 16th century aspirations of romantic love, to feudal landed aristocracy’s ambitions of greater wealth and power, Coontz is able to distract the reader away from these universal timeless truths. In much the same way Coontz previous book (The Way Never Were: American Families and the nostalgia Trap) was able to use the straw man of 1950,s Ward & June Clever imagery to convince her audience that marriages essential features are a fanciful shibboleth of mere nostalgia.
Feminists assertions to the contrary, marriage has never failed to promote this core normative function.

Coontz has dismissed intellectual integrity and moral vision by using her work to foment an evolutionist paradigm that views progress as whatever happens next. She is merely another apologist for contemporary family breakdown. Coontz attempts to shift attention from the grave problems of modern society in its struggle to bring men and women together in lifelong monogamy; for the good of themselves, for the good of their children, and for the good of all society.

Having said that… Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Her latest piece in the NYT could be read to challenge romantic love versus marriage as an institution. I do believe we look to marriage to satisfy to much adult emotional need, and not enough about its status regarding childrearing and stabilizing society.

"My real objection to Coontz’s NYT column is that she doesn’t take gay history into account sufficiently."

That’s because everything in your world seems to come back to gay’s. A (by definition) heterosexual institution, has very little to do with homosexuals. Coontz only brings up homosexuality as a reason same-sex friendships grew less intimate. That’s the extent of this columns concern with the issue. Yes, I’m sure you would be happy if everything ever printed made its focal point homosexuality.

knoxgirl said...

No, none spend the night in the arms of their friends, but I think MadisonMan probably nailed the source of that.

talk about word choice!

Revenant said...

The guys I know who've gotten married suddenly seem to have no free time anymore. Not because they don't *want* to have free time anymore, but because their wives don't like them spending a lot of time elsewhere.

Overall, it doesn't seem very appealing. I'm planning to stay single.

Kirby Olson said...

Kurt Vonnegut should have married Sybil.

One nice person is more than enough for most of the rest of us.

The Jerk said...

She continually ignores its primary function of bringing men & women together in stable households for the successful rearing and education of their children.

Fitz, meet the functionalist fallacy.

http://lefarkins.blogspot.com/2005/05/more-on-rum-sodomy-and-nash.html

mf said...

Excellent post! Something to think abaout right now since I'm having a difficult time in my marriage. I don't look at my husband as a God either, but I do expect certain things out of a marriage. Making excuses goes only so far.

Is there such a thing as "chemistry" I wonder? Some people simply have never experienced that and I wonder if that is a glue for hard times.

Fitz said...

"Fitz, meet the functionalist fallacy."

Nowhere in Coontz critique (nor in the "falacy" you point to) does it refute that marriage fails to serve this function.

This is hardly a "fallacy" in the sense of a logical proof.

I do however subscribe to the notion that it performs other function and has been honed over time.